Fanatics Leadership Series: Bill Bradley

The following is an excerpt from Knicks favorite Bill Bradley’s book, Values of the Game.  Of course there is no way you can be a Knicks fan and not be familiar with “Dollar Bill” Bradley, unless you are so young that the greatest Knick you ever saw was Steve Francis.  Bill Bradley is one of the most legendary Knicks; an alum with the likes of Willis Reed, Clyde Frazier, Phil Jackson and Dave DeBusschere who not only had stellar basketball careers, but also notable post-game careers.  Princeton grad Bill Bradley should know a little about leadership. He was drafted by the Knicks in 1965 and was with the team, after playing in the Italian League, for 10 years.  An Olympian, Hall of Famer and former All-star, Bradley played on two Knicks Championship teams. After basketball, he entered politics and was a powerful senator for New Jersey for 18 years.  He ran for President of the United States in 2000. His number 24 is retired and hanging in the Garden rafters.

Leadership: Bringing Out The Best

Values of the GameLeadership means getting people to think, believe, see, and do what they might not have without you. It means possessing the vision to set the right goal and the decisiveness to pursue it single-mindedly. It means being aware of the fears and anxieties felt by those you lead even as you urge them to overcome those fears. It can appear in a speech before hundreds of people or in a dialogue with one other person – or simply by example.

To the Bulls’ Phil Jackson, the key leadership function for a coach in the pros is getting winning is the purpose of playing, but to achieve that end a coach frequently has to create a context larger than the immediate game. At each level I played, the desire to win was a reflection of a deeper desire. In my small-town high school, the motivation was to beat the big city schools; in college, the challenge was for a group of athletes who were primarily students to beat the best in the NCAA; in the pros, the larger purpose was to show that a team without a dominant star could win the NBA title. Pete Carril’s idea of leadership was to ask his players to give a little more than they thought they were capable of achieving. That’s why Princeton on occasion became a giant killer.

A wise coach doesn’t do all the talking. Sometimes with the right group, he’ll let the team members put pressure on players who are problem children. In 1994, the Bulls without Michael Jordan, were playing the Knicks for the Eastern Conference semifinals. In the last seconds of a close game three, Jackson called the game-deciding play, with Toni Kukoc rather than Scottie Pippen as the shooter. An angered Pippen took himself out of the game. Kukoc hit the shot and the Bulls won, but Pippen‘s highly visible act of insubordination posed an immediate challenge for Jackson. Phil declined to come down hard on Pippen in his postgame interview. In the locker room however, he closed the door, announced that he thought the team had something to say to Pippen, and then left the room Bill Cartwright, a quintessential team player who was in the final year of his career, was so upset that he was close to tears as he asked Pippen how he could have let the team down after all they had sacrificed for as a group throughout the year. Other players chimed in along similar lines. Pippen, man enough to see his error, apologized on the spot, and in the next game he was back contributing to the Bulls’ performance. If Phil himself had confronted Scottie, the result might not have been as positive; by harnessing the team to do his work, he was more effective.

Coaches who seek the media limelight risk irritating their star players, and the results can be counterproductive. Pouting stars rarely win big games. Coaches who use the media criticize their players also often live to regret it. Red Holzman was a master in dealing with the press. For him, the only thing that counted was what happened on the floor. He knew that as far as the public was concerned, if the team won, he was a success. If it lost, he was a failure. This insight, combined with his natural modesty and fierce desire to win, produced a postgame demeanor that was, well, unnewsworthy. He never criticized a player. He spoke in truisms that nevertheless underlined his basic principles. All his players were talented; defense was the key; teamwork paid off;only victory was acceptable. Period, end of interview. Red confined his criticism of our play to the locker room, where it belonged.

Above all, the coach who exercises leadership communicates clearly to the players what they have to do. It’s not unlike military training. A commando operation succeeds because each person has a particular assignment and knows what it is in precise detail. The same is true of basketball, but many coaches either burden their players with an overly complicated offense or they don’t suggest any structure to the offense at all. You can be a freewheeling practice coach, like Princeton’s Van Breda Kolff, or a structures practice coach, like Hank Iba, but in each case you have to make sure that every player knows what you want. If you have prepared well enough, events in the game can’t rattle you. I love to see a team that’s ready when the opponent tries a full-court press. That readiness comes only with hours of practice in which each player knows where to go and what to do in order to break the opponent’s press. Picking it apart with precision passes and cuts often leads to easy baskets. It takes only a few such responses before the team that’s doing the pressing retreats from further embarrassment. . . .

Tactics are not everything; sometimes a coach needs to provide personal leadership. In 1982, Georgetown played the University of Carolina for the NCAA championship. It was a matchup featuring two of the NCAA’s greatest players that year: Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing and North Carolina’s James Worthy. It was also a matchup of two great coaches: Dean Smith of North Carolina and John Thompson of Georgetown. The game was hard fought and came down to the last seconds. North Carolina went ahead by 1 with eighteen seconds to go on a jump shot made by a freshman named Michael Jordan. Georgetown took possession of the ball with plenty of time to make the winning basket. Then – inexplicably, in one of those very human moments on the court – Fred Brown, a Georgetown guard, mistook James Worthy for a teammate and threw a pass directly into Worthy’s hands.

Georgetown’s dream of a championship disappeared. The team was devastated. The fans were in shock. All eyes were on Brown. He committed a blunder that would be with him for the rest of his life. Thompson understood this, and putting aside his disappointment he wrapped the young player in a bear hug, whispering reassurance in his ear. It was one of the most moving gestures I have ever witnessed on a basketball court. It spoke volumes about Thompson’s relationship to his players, about his most fundamental values, about his excellence as a leader. . . .

There are also players who lead during a game by virtue of their self-confidence. Dean Smith has remarked that often the player who provides the emotional leadership is not necessarily the team’s best player but the one who is held in the greatest respect by the team. When the best player is also the most respected, such as Isiah Thomas, Larry Bird, or the incomparable Michael Jordan, a different dynamic takes over. The best player can then lead by example, contributing more than anyone else to the effort and at the same time spurring teammates to outdo themselves. Oscar Robertson, one of the all-time great NBA stars, once told me that the mark of a truly excellent player is that he makes the worst player on his team into a good one.

Copyright 1998 by Bill Bradley


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